Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Now what?

I've always heard rumors that certain plants (blueberries?) are "caffeine freaks" and thrive when coffee grounds are added around them. So last month I started saving all our used coffee grounds and tea leaves in a separate compost bowl.

The bowl is now full and I'm ready to do something with it.

But what? How do coffee and tea grounds work for plants?

I've read a variety of things online, but they seem to contradict. Some say the grounds need to be composted. Others say they should be just added around the plant base without composting. Yet others say to mix the grounds with sawdust (for acid-loving plants) and mulch.

So, since the collective wisdom of my readers far exceeds the wisdom of the internet (wink), what is your experience with using coffee and tea grounds on plants?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A picture is worth a thousand tasks

Consider this photo:

This photo was taken about 9 pm and represents the conclusion of a thousand tasks that occupied our day.

First, the dishes are done. Third time today.

Second, those are a bunch of tankards on the counter we're just about to card and pack for a shipment going out tomorrow. Don's been working on these all week long.

Third, that's 18 pints of canned pinto beans on the right. I soaked them overnight, simmered them for a few hours this morning, and canned them this afternoon.

Fourth, those two white upended buckets on top the jars of beans are cleaned milk buckets, because I'm milking Polly again. This is because we butchered three animals on Monday, including Polly's yearling steer calf Chuck. We castrated Chuck when he was a few days old, but apparently we didn't get "everything." He suddenly started acting like a bull. The last thing we need is another bull around the place, so when we called the butchers to dispatch two other animals, we threw Chuck in there as well. However now Polly needs to be milked twice a day, so I'm back at it.

Fifth, the pot on the stove is frying down bacon bits. I had accumulated a lot of el-cheapo bacon ends in the chest freezer. With the meat due back from the butchers in a couple of weeks, plus the fact that we now have a smaller chest freezer, space is at a premium and I need to clean it out as much as possible. I've been meaning to can up bacon bits anyway, but it takes a long time to fry everything down and drain off the fat. That pot on the stove is the third batch I've fried down today.

Bottom line: the photo above represents a LOT of work. Don and I are both wiped. I'm off to bed. Good night.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Barnyard economics

Don listens to a lot of talk radio while he works. He came in from the shop a couple of weeks ago, chuckling over two economists who were being interviewed.

Apparently the economists were arguing over what drives the economy, and they were getting very hot under the collar.

"This is what drives the economy," the first economist practically shouted. "It's production!"

"No, you fool!" retorted the second economist. "This is what drives the economy -- it's consumption!"

But Don, good farmer that he is, was able to reduce the arguments of the economists down to what he called Barnyard Economics.

"Take two bales of hay," he said...

One good...

...and one bad.

The cows will eat the good stuff and not the bad stuff.

Farmers (the producers of hay) must stop trying to make the cows eat the bad stuff because the cows (the consumers of hay) won't thrive.

In other words: Consumption is driving our production.

And there you have it, folks. Barnyard economics.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Roundup

I saw this article on Drudge the other day: DOE warns 'modern life' threatened by terror, climate threats to electric grid.

It kind of surprised me that mainstream news site would address the problems with our national power grid so candidly. "The Department of Energy warns in a new report that the aging electric grid, which provides most electricity to the nation, faces threats from terrorism and storms caused by climate change that could knock out Wall Street, hospitals and the Internet if left unfixed ... In the new report, the Energy Department warns that modern life could be endangered if the grid went down. A congressional report has warned that a solar flare or terrorist attack could darken the grid for a year, during which most of those supplied by the grid would die."

Reading over the article made me want to do something preparedness-related. As such, I decided to look over the canning closet.

My canning closet, if you recall, used to be a superfluous bathroom which Don gutted and installed with shelves. (And yes, we're working on putting in earthquake bars across the shelf fronts.)

Since I'm an avid canner (actually that's an understatement -- I'm a passionate canner), I needed a dedicated space to store all our canned goods. The canning closet's original shelves filled up quickly, so Don installed additional shelving which relieved some of the space issues... although it's still cramped quarters.

But last year for some reason, I didn't do much canning. And, since we're constantly using the stocks in the canning closet, I was showing distinct "holes" in my formerly well-stocked pantry

So -- time to do some canning and fill in those holes.

Our budget is tight this month, but I have some things on standby waiting to be canned. I had this big ol' bag of bulk frozen peas that was taking up room in the freezer, so I decided to start with that.

I heated the peas...

...and started filling jars.

How many jars? I have a hand-written note in my canning book that says ten pounds of frozen peas fills about 17 jars. I washed 18 jars, just to be safe (the maximum my pressure canner holds).

In preparing my Tattler lids, it always amuses me to see a sampling of what we used up.

Pre-heating the lids and gaskets.

First layer in the canner.

Second layer in the canner.

Processed them for 40 minutes at 12.5 lbs. (for our elevation). They came out of the canner just before bedtime.

Uh-oh, now I've been bitten by the canning bug. I decided to soak, simmer, and can some pinto beans for easy refried beans. I was out of canned pinto beans in the pantry, but I had a ten-pound bag of dried beans waiting for me. I can only can five pounds at a time, since five pounds of beans comes out to around 17 or 18 pints, canned.

I soaked them overnight...

...then let them simmer for several hours the next day.

All canned up and ready to store.

I took a quick inventory of the canning closet, and here are some of the things I want to stock up on:

  • Bacon bits
  • Chicken breasts
  • Carrots
  • Peaches
  • Pizza sauce
  • Mustard
  • Chicken stock
  • Chili
  • Mushrooms

As I said, we're on a tight budget this month, so I'll stick with canning up stuff we already have on hand, such as the rest of the pintos. That's the best way to stock a pantry: not with massive one-fell-swoop activities, but little incremental steps.

It occurs to me I haven't posted much lately on the topic of preparedness, so it might be worth putting more emphasis on the subject. The reason this post is called "Friday Roundup" is because I want to start a new Friday habit of posting whatever we've done during the week (big or small) that inches us toward increased self-sufficiency or self-reliance.

And since everyone's circumstances and situations are different (meaning, we can all learn from each other), I invite everyone to pitch in during Friday Roundups to explain to other readers what steps you took during the week -- remember, big or small -- toward preparedness.

This may also encourage people to do something, anything, that may prove helpful if, like the article above suggests, the power grid goes down.

So... what's your Friday Roundup?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Happy Live-Your-Regular-Life Day

So I guess this is Earth Day. Wheeee.

Obviously we don’t pay attention to such things, but of course many others do. Celebrants discuss ways they can increase their sustainability, decrease their carbon footprint, commit green “acts,” and other such things like the suggestions on

The Earth Day website claims there have been 1,123,958,881 “acts of green” committed. (That's an uncannily precise number. How did they determine this?)

Websites like this urge us to “support environmental education” and “reduce energy consumption.” I tried to learn how we can “Use Less Energy: Save Money and the Environment!” by using their online calculator, but it required me to log in and divulge personal information, so I didn’t do it.

So in our own fashion, we decided to (cough) celebrate Earth Day too. What kinds of "acts of green" did we commit? Consider the following:

• I simmered an enormous pot of pinto beans...

...and then canned them for our pantry.

• I gathered our own organic eggs.

• I planted heirloom herb seeds which eventually will get planted in our organic garden. The peppers (cayenne and cascabella) are already planted in seed pots.

• We walked to work (about 50 feet).

• We banded (castrated) little Curly, turning him into a steer and thus assuring organic grass-fed beef in the freezer in about two years.

• I did some laundry (in cold water) and hung the clothes to dry on our indoor clothes racks.

• I fed the livestock, including our bull Samson, who is responsible for the sustainability of our herd.

• I emptied the kitchen compost bucket into the garden compost pile.

• I mucked out the barn and put the waste on the barn compost pile, continuing the sustainability of our organic garden fertilizer.

• We got in our first shipment of tractor tires for the year, thus recycling these massive items, saving disposal costs for the tire center, keeping the tires out of the landfill, and transforming them into useful food-producing units.

• I dug some weeds in the garden, preparing the tire beds for planting so we can harvest our own organic vegetables in a few months.

In other words, we did stuff we pretty much always do. This is our lifestyle.

The trouble with all these “green acts” we’ve been committing is I doubt the Earth Day people would appreciate them. Why? Because while we thoroughly subscribe to the notion of green living, we entirely disagree with the green agenda. To understand why, here's an older WND column entitled My Green Is Greener Than Your Green which more fully explains things.

So while Earth Day will come and go, the Lewis family will continue to live our quiet, earth-anchored God-centered sustainable low-carbon-footprint lives, happy as clams. Happy Earth Day! Or happy Wednesday! Whatever.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

I ♥ cow poop

I love cow poop. Really I do.

You see, cow poop composts. It produces some of the most beautiful "black gold" you'll ever see. And compost is one of the most perfect plant foods there is, ideal for vegetable gardens.

This is our massive compost pile, steaming gently in the chilly morning dawn.

Here's one of our hens, perched on top.

Let me pause here so I can wax philosophical for a moment.

You see, I envision homesteading as a big circle. In a complete circle, all things on the farm are interconnected. In an incomplete circle, there is still input from outside sources. The challenge as I see it is to link and connect as much of that circle as we can, slowly decreasing the number of outside sources we use.

Without the compost provided by our livestock, that circle would be virtually impossible to close.

So how does cow poop help close the circle? Well, consider our chickens.

A neighbor often comments on how fat our chickens are compared to his. One day while showing him our latest calf, he pointed to our giganto mound of compost and said, "That's why your chickens are fat and mine are not."

His ladies are free-range, just like ours are, but he lacks the richness of a compost pile, chock-full of earthworms and other delectable goodies for his hens to forage.

It would be no exaggeration to say our chickens spend most of their waking hours on the compost pile, scratching up whatever edibles they can find. Their consumption of store-bought chicken feed goes down drastically in warmer months.

Today, while in the barn, I noticed this pile of fresh cow poop (from Raven, who still has access to the barn until we castrate little Curly). Notice these large golden flies.

Any time a cow drops a fresh patty, these flies cluster to it within moments.

I don't know what kind of flies they are, but since they don't come in the house, nor do they sting or otherwise bother us, I don't care. But one thing's for certain: the hens love them. Chickens will sometimes station themselves by a fresh patty and gobble the flies as they land.

With older cow patties, the ladies will scratch through them, eating any larvae they find.

In other words, cow poop -- either fresh or composting -- indirectly provides food for the chickens. The chickens, in turn, provide food for us. Then in its turn, chicken litter (from cleaning the coop) gets put on the compost pile, where it eventually breaks down with everything else until it becomes "black gold" we can put on the garden, which in turn feeds us. Garden waste, meanwhile, is either fed to chickens or cows, or if it's inedible to the beasties, it's also composted... and thus the cycle continues, closing a few more gaps in that circle.

So although it sounds funny, and although I don't appreciate it when I forget to check the bottom of my shoes, I really do love cow poop.

And I'm guessing that's not a sentiment you often hear from many women.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Gathering 'round the radio

It might look hokey and of course it's staged, but I still thought this was a charming photo.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A giant experiment

In the past, whenever we wanted to raise some chickens for the freezer, we opted for Cornish Crosses. This hybrid bird is bred to gain weight and size with a speed awesome to behold.

The trouble is, these birds are freaky. Their bodies can't withstand the speed of their weight gain, and if you don't butcher them at about eight weeks, they either dislocate or break legs, or their organs start shutting down.

Plus -- and this is important when it comes to food sustainability -- they can't be bred. Don looked into what kind of "cross" a Cornish Cross is, and let's just say their lineage is complex and precise and not effectively reproducible on a homestead without a lot of dedicated work.

We've butchered "dual-purpose" chickens such as Rhode Island Reds, etc., and frankly the result is disappointing -- too small, not much meat, etc.

So -- what are the alternatives when it comes to meat chickens?

Last year we decided to get serious about this question, and looked into a breed called Jersey Giants.

These are heritage chickens who used to be the industry standard for meat birds until the fast-growing (freaky weird) Cornish Crosses supplanted them. Roosters average thirteen pounds, hens average eleven. They're decent egg-layers, extremely docile (they'd better be, at that size!), cold-hardy, and go broody (although the hens are so large they sometimes break the eggs).

According to the Wikipedia article, "The Jersey Giant was created by John and Thomas Black; with the intent of replacing the turkey, the kind of poultry used primarily for meat at the time."

Altogether they sound like an excellent and sustainable source for chicken meat without the weird freakishness of Cornish Crosses. So earlier this week we ordered fifteen birds -- 10 pullets and 5 straight-run (unsexed) chicks, which hopefully will include some roosters. They're due to arrive in early June. We don't intend to butcher many (if any) at first, but instead will start incubating eggs and establishing a flock before putting anyone in the freezer.

I'm excited about this new poultry venture. If it works out, we may transition solely to Jersey Giants and let our current flock die out from attrition.

If anyone has experience with these critters, I'd be interested in hearing your perspective!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A calf for Raven

I've been watching Raven carefully for her impending birth. Yesterday morning she tried to make a dash for it -- jumping over the fence into the woods -- which isn't unusual for a cow who really wants to be alone to birth her baby. So we closed her into the barn, to her great annoyance.

This morning when I went out to feed, Raven was restless. She wandered all over the barn -- including getting in the way as I was pitchforking hay into the feed bins -- kept stamping her back feet, and was lashing her tail. All classic signs of very early labor.

I checked on her every fifteen or twenty minutes after that. Sure enough, around 10 am, she was in active labor, straining with an arched back.

She frequently laid down and rested for a few moments between contractions.

Notice her preoccupied, inward-facing expression. She's not paying attention to me -- she's paying attention to her body.

As strong contractions hit, she would heave over on her side, groaning and straining.

You can see the little front hooves making an appearance. They came and went a few times.

Finally the tip of the nose and mouth was visible.

With a mighty heave, Raven pushed out the head and forequarters.

Even while still half-born, the little calf was sneezing fluids from its nose and even shaking its head.

One last solid push, and the calf was out.

Within seconds, Raven was on her feet and licking.

I caught a glimpse of the genitals -- another boy! Heavens, that makes four little bull calves so far this spring.

He's a strong little guy, and started struggling to his feet within minutes. (Sorry for the blurry photos, it was kind of dim in the barn.)

The calf is chestnut-brown. For no particular reason I named him Curly.

It didn't take Curly long to figure out which end of mama was which, although of course he got a few false starts.

Raven is an experienced mama, calm and attentive.

Other critters came and went, peeking at the excitement through the feedbox slats and mooing in sympathy.

While Raven took a much-deserved rest, little knock-kneed Curly watches a chicken.

He's a strong nurser, this boy!

One thing's for certain -- after the harsh quasi-blizzard we had two days ago, today couldn't have been more glorious -- sunny and warm. Good birthing weather!

By evening everything was quiet and calm once again.

A quartet of little boys so far. Get ready for rowdiness!